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Charlie Wilsons War shows witty restraint
Tom Hanks, left, is Charlie Wilson, a congressman who, with the help of a right-wing activist (Julia Roberts), gets involved in Russia’s war in Afghanistan. With the help of CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, right), Wilson begins funneling money and weapons to Afghanistan.

If you’d like to know what "Charlie Wilson’s War" is all about, just take a look at Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Avrakotos’ large, round, amber-tinted glasses, his barely coifed "big" hair and his mustache that looks like two caterpillars meeting on his lip make him both an accurate representation and a subtle parody of the 1980s.

That is the essence of the film: It gives us a truthful glimpse at a pivotal moment in American history, but does so with a wink of the eye that acknowledges how absurd the truth is.

"Charlie Wilson’s War" tells the story of how one inconsequential congressman helped the impoverished, untrained folk of Afghanistan defeat the mighty Soviet army. During the Cold War 80s, the Soviet Union had begun to cut a swath through Afghanistan in an attempt to gobble up oil resources and spread communism. For political reasons that seem baffling now, the U.S. was doing nothing to stop it.

A zealous, captivating and outrageously wealthy right-wing activist (Julia Roberts) convinces her old friend Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) to get involved. With the help of brilliant but brash CIA agent Avrakotos, Wilson uses his positions on key congressional committees to begin funneling money and weapons to Afghan resistance fighters.

Before the public — and apparently the president — even knows about it, Wilson has started a full-fledged war and thrusts America forever into the middle of Middle East violence and power struggles. It’s an education in government bureaucracy and American involvement in Afghanistan that doesn’t seem "educational" at all.

Despite such heavy material, the film’s overall tone is funny and witty (does anyone capture Washington better than screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the guy behind "The West Wing" and "An American President"?). But there are also deeply moving and thought-provoking moments that remind us of the political and human implications of what we’re watching.

It all adds up to a humane, intelligent and — best of all — utterly enjoyable movie.

This is the best war on terror movie yet, because it never preaches and it delves into the origins of our battles against Muslim extremists rather than espousing a political doctrine for 2008. It also takes a frank look at some of our catastrophic foreign policy mistakes in a way that doesn’t pit one political party versus the other.

The cast is perfect. Roberts’ role as a sexy, middle-aged political meddler is ideal for this stage of her career. Hoffman steals every scene he’s in, which is saying something since he shares the screen with Hanks in all of them. Amy Adams ("Enchanted") continues her climb into the upper echelons of Hollywood as she holds her own with all of this heavyweight talent.

I wrote in a recent blog that this last quarter of 2007 would feature several films by genuine moviemaking legends, and that category includes director Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Closer"). Few directors are capable of creating the balance among laughter, tears and intellect we find in "Charlie Wilson’s War."

We’re lucky enough to have many outstanding young filmmakers working these days, but films by relative "old timers" like Nichols, Sidney Lumet ("Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead") and Francis Ford Coppola ("Youth Without Youth") remind us of the difference between "very good" and "great."

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.